Love, Leadership & Why The NFL Sucks At Both

Love, Leadership & Why The NFL Sucks At Both

For decades, the NFL has demonstrated that it’s great at managing its product. Last month, however, it showed that it sucks at providing real leadership, and that it sucks even more at spreading the love.

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Exemplary Product Management

As a former sports marketer, I’ve long said that the National Football League was the example of great product management in sports.

The league controls the product in every shape and form — from TV rights negotiation and sponsorship right down to the color of socks players can wear during league games.

But my love for the NFL brand, and for the league itself, has ended.

The relationship is over.

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It was an easy break-up.

I feel good about my decision, a decision that was driven by my heart more than my mind.

I woke up one September Sunday in America and realized the league doesn’t love me.

The Sunday morning sports talk on ESPN was just spewing with how the league commissioner fumbled the ball over the Ray Rice scandal and the growing number of players who were violently abusing their spouses. The commissioner continued to fumble, from different field positions, as he seemingly took advice from different parties, while ignoring what the public was saying.

More importantly, he didn’t seem to be caring about what society needs from its role models, whether it be the examples the players set, or the example he himself sets, from such a high-profile, larger-than-life platform.

“I want to know what you stand for!” I demanded.

Actually, I want to know what any organization stands for, and money isn’t an answer that will keep me in the relationship.

‘Cause money can’t buy me love!

In a time when more and more leaders of startups wake up with a mission to save the world, when companies are turned around by revolutionaries who embrace noble visions to really change things, the NFL talks a good talk, but it doesn’t walk a noble walk.

I watched a New York Giants game that Sunday afternoon, and suddenly I felt as though I was watching Big Time Wrestling: no social value, just entertainment. Even the play-by-play from the announcers seemed scripted.

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A Potential Leadership Moment

The growing number of player who have abused their wives, partners or the like has rocked the NFL this year.

“To be rocked,” in any environment, presents a difficult-but-golden moment for leaders to shine, or not.

In this case, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell hasn’t shined very brightly, and I’ll come to that in a minute, after I push back on his inner circle who claim he’s a true leader.

Generally, the NFL’s inner circles say Goodell’s expanding the regular season calendar to include Thursday nights demonstrated great leadership.



Roone Arledge of ABC persuaded the NFL to create Monday Night Football in 1970. That was leadership. It showed vision and… love… love of the game, and love for the fans. It gave fans what they wanted, before they even knew it.

That Monday Night Football made millions in profit as a result, good on ya’, Roone!

Those millions enabled the NFL and ABC to continually improve the product for the fans, as well as for team owners and players. Good on ya’.

A couple of decades later, Friday Night Football was created. Calendar expansion was good for the fans and good for the business.

So creating Thursday Night Football this past decade might be good product management, but it’s not exactly a lighthouse of leadership.

Your real leadership moment, Mr. Commissioner, or your potential leadership opportunity, came in the form of Baltimore Ravens running back, Ray Rice, (allegedly) knocking out his wife in a casino elevator. The incident was caught on camera (and too graphic for this blog).

Again, Rice wasn’t the only NFL athlete of late to resort to violence in his private life. It has virtually become an epidemic. Fans have been looking for leadership from the league on this issue, and the Rice incident made it a burning issue.

Any leader with a heart would have said, “No!” to Rice.

Any leader with conviction would have said, “You are not the role model that will serve in this league, under my leadership. You are out!”

You, Mr. Commissioner, seemed to say, “Let me gather some input from my various constituents, and… we’ll get back to you.”

You listened to the team owners and the players union behind closed doors, as you brushed off what the general public — your fans — were screaming for.

And even then, you waffled on Rice’s suspension. Two games? The full season? Lifetime?

Questions, questions. So…

What do you stand for, Mr. Commissioner?

You are in a privileged position to make a difference in society, to stand for something higher than the league itself, something human.

Just guessing (what else am I to do?) but it does seem that you stand for “entertainment value”… in the form of money.

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Money enables the mission, not the other way around!

Great leaders know that a great mission is not about making money, but rather, that making money enables a great mission.

In my eyes, Mr. Commissioner, you are a lost leader.

Providing entertainment in itself is good but not great, especially when the property has been entertaining for a century.

You, Mr. Commissioner, had the chance to really give back or, better yet, to just plain give to the ones who need it: to the victims of domestic violence, to society, to the greater good.

You had the chance to leave a legacy of human greatness… and of organizational greatness.

But you took advice from your closest, boardroom constituents and decided in their favor. Pressure from the team owners and the players union is what guided your not-so-clear decision.

In doing so, you served the wrong tribe.

That tribe doesn’t truly love you. They love the money that you bring them.

Your fans, however, consume your entertainment product, and they consume your advertisers’ products. For that reason alone, they deserve your true love… and true leadership.

These fans love their home teams. Some of them love a player or two, or even a coach.

But you didn’t facilitate that. That’s been growing for a century!

Simply put, Mr. Commissioner, these fans don’t love the league, and they sure as hell don’t love you. Not now, at least.

And why should they? Your image is that of just another corporate suit without a heart, privileged to have a great job, but not fighting for what he believes in. Or don’t you, deep down inside, even believe that domestic violence should not be tolerated by your armies of role models?

I don’t know what’s scarier: not fighting or not believing.

But if you do believe, Mr. Commissioner, you’re not using your heart to win hearts. You’re using the minds of lawyers and accountants and other suits to ride the storm.

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A True Leader

Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960’s, had a heart, and he won hearts.

Lombardi was a true leader. He was driven by human principles. He loved, even if it was tough love.

And he was loved.

He was a winner, and not just because of his win-loss record or historic Super Bowl victories, but for principles and conviction that bore into the souls of his followers.

“Battles are primarily won in the hearts of men,” Lombardi said. “Once you have won his heart, he will follow you anywhere.”

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The NFL has been busy crafting its message, but these messages are not resonating in people’s hearts, because the league’s actions are heartless.

The league’s PR spin over the past month has been just that. Spin. A Hail Mary! Not even a punt!

It’s not leadership, and it’s not love.

Come on, Goodell. It’s not too late.

What do you want to be remembered for? For putting a little more money in your laughable “not-for-profit” bank account? Or for bringing much-needed principles and conviction to our society?

It’s in your hands.

What will your legacy be?

Give your fans some true love, and your legacy might just be a noble one.

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I help sales teams improve their performance by putting the “love” into the sales process. I also help managers in commercial environments lead in these tough times. The tools and techniques vary, but the mindset is simply a heart-set.

Let’s talk about love, sales and leadership. Contact me here and let’s set up a call.

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Photo by Zennie Abraham.